Linking culture and commerce

By the Books Editor

The heated public debate in Limerick City over the up-coming of City of Culture year and its administration has caused both delight and dismay.

It may delight those who think that too much in these hard time is spent generally by the state on the arts. But this is a short sighted view.

Those who are dismayed will be ready to explain just how valuable Irish culture is in terms of the economy at home, in tourist receipts, and in our invisible exports in terms of royalties from foreign publishers returning to Ireland. Films, too, play a large role in the economic turnover of the arts.

The arts certainly pay their way, which is more than can be said for some who have fastened on public funds for support, such as the 'consultancy' class.

But it raises the question ñ just who owns ëIrish cultureí, the Government, the people or the artists who create it? And where in this scene do the newly emerged ëarts administratorsí lie?

Artistic activity is not, on the whole, a collective activity. Poets, novelists, painters, dramatists as often as not work from an inner compulsion.

Yet the work they produce is all too often laid hold of by others and manipulated for other purposes. In Ireland in the past this was often for political purpose. But in the present case a new element has emerged.


The exploitation of the individual artist for the purpose of generating economic benefits for others, which are, in this era of cut backs and shrinking book sales, museum restrictions, and theatre closures, not shared with the artists themselves.

In Dublin, a ëCity of Literatureí, according to the City Council, the same things are happening. When the Temple Arts Quarter was established, as I recall, some eight places that sold books, books of all kinds, from Irish poetry to esoterica, were closed down. Only the Irish Communist Party book shop survives, ironically because they are landlords of a unit they lease out.                 

There are several State-supported institutions there, such as the National Photographic Archive (now short staffed, however) and the popular Film Institute, but frankly the area is more interested in pubs and mass market restaurants posing as gourmet establishments. 

In Ranelagh the Ranelagh Arts Centre which used to sell second hand books had to give this up and become an art gallery. An art gallery is recognised as culture by the city authorities, but a book shop is a business and is charged a business rate, at the increasingly swinging level.

In Paris things are very different. There small family firms receive special concessions which enables them to stay in business. The same is true of small cultural entities such as book shops and galleries. Hence the vibrant mix of arts, culture and commercial life on the Left Bank which Dublin has been unable to create.

Perhaps this is because Paris starts with the culture and ends with the commerce. In Ireland we begin with the commerce and end, if at all, with the culture.


In Limerick the distinctive giants of literature are perhaps Bryan Merrriman and Kate OíBrien, in whose work various and varied aspects of Catholicism in its social and spiritual aspects receive very different consideration.

But what they shared with the rappers whose words caused all this trouble was an penchant to describe things as they are. Do The Midnight Court or Without My Cloak show Limerick at its best either?

Over the last year many books shops have closed. The Readers shop in Dun Laoghaire will be much missed. It has gone the way of Webbs, the Dublin Books shop, of the Eblana (where one could actually buy modern Irish poetry, imagine), Parsonís, and Greeneís.  It is a litany of the lost. Across Ireland real bookshops are as rare as henís teeth.

However, do not be entirely dismayed. A brave soul has set up First Editions at 7 Pembroke Lane, just off Waterloo Road. He, however, is using family promises (a former sweetery) and keeps the operation lean. Good luck to him in his enterprise. For culture, like religion, depends in the end on the integrity of the individual